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Universal march of progress and understanding
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Universal march of progress and understanding

Vayehi - Genesis 47:28-50:26

Few biblical prophecies have generated as much heat as this week’s blessing of Judah. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” The verse following, however, adds the caveat, ad sheyavo shiloh, and therein lies the problem.

The JPS Bible translates the phrase, “so that tribute shall come to him,” but admits that its meaning is actually “wholly obscure.” The first two words, ad sheyavo, could also mean “until there arises…,” as if to say that sovereignty will last only until someone or something named Shiloh appears. So the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98b) identifies Shiloh as “the name of the Messiah” — a tradition that continues into the Middle Ages in such commentators as Ramban and Baal Haturim.

But Christians too knew this tradition and argued that Shiloh was Jesus, who had already arrived. They pointed to the absence of independent Jewish rule in Jerusalem as evidence that the scepter of authority had passed firmly to them.

Somewhere between 1159 and 1187, a Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, set sail throughout the known world because of these Christian counter-claims. He wrote glowingly of the Jewish exilarch in Babylonia to demonstrate that at least somewhere, Jewish rule was still alive and well.

Here’s the interesting thing: Except for fundamentalists, no one cares about this argument anymore. When it comes to claims of national sovereignty we no longer look to sacred writ for a compelling say. Any number of alternative justifications are appropriate — the historical rights of sovereign peoples, previously agreed-upon treaties, and matters of universal fairness, for example — but no one with modern consciousness expects the Bible, the Koran, or any other sacred writings to provide cogent arguments for or against statehood.

Israel’s continuing sovereignty is still at risk, but everyone knows that any possible solution lies in such things as moral justification, military strength, economic development, and diplomatic competence, not textual fluency.

Even Jewish tradition knew that. Only in the messianic era, says Bachya ibn Pakuda, will weaponry of war become irrelevant, and following Bachya, many commentators see “the scepter” and “ruler’s staff” of our verse as the subtle reminder that until the Messiah comes we will have no choice but to use at least the threat of a defensive war as the ultimate guarantor of Israel’s survival.

But if biblical prophecies are irrelevant, why do we still read Torah with a view toward interpreting it? If its truths are not prophetically dependable, then what are they? What kind of truths, that is, can Torah give us?

This question gets too little attention in public conversation, the result being that people interpret columns like this one as being the same sort of thing that pre-modern interpreters were fond of. It may use similar rhetoric, but it is altogether different in what it promises. If we are to take our religious texts seriously, we need a more sophisticated understanding of what they offer.

For a start, we should say that truths are universal. The Golden Rule, for example, is true whether one derives it from Hillel, Jesus, Confucius, or the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. As our medieval philosophers put it, God’s truths are available through reason alone, even though God chooses to inform us of them through Torah.

We study Torah, then, not to learn a Jewish truth that is unknowable through normal human reason and unavailable to all peoples everywhere; it is to raise consciousness of what we can call a meaningful truth. Meaningful truths are those that move us intellectually, emotionally, and practically. They come clothed in metaphor, story, and homegrown atmosphere — by which I mean a sense of ownership that leads us to say, This is a truth that has a claim upon us — part of humankind’s universally evolved understanding, perhaps, but reaching us through the vehicle of the accepted texts, beloved stories, and trusted authorities that we have adopted as our own.

Universal truths become meaningful when they are clothed in particularistic garb. We interpret our texts as others do theirs, not to prove each other wrong but to enhance the lives of each particular group of readers and, ultimately, we hope, to add color and texture to the universal march of human progress and understanding.

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